Park City, Utah Feb. 13, 2002 (AP by Eddie Pells)--Get those brackets ready. Crank up those office pools. For their next Olympic act, the snowboarders present March Madness in February.
With the Americans still stoked off their exciting, historic victories on the halfpipe, the sport takes a faster turn Thursday with qualifying for the parallel giant slalom.
The finals are Friday, and that's where the real show begins. The top 16 riders from qualifying are seeded, placed into brackets and made to race side-by-side. It's a single-elimination tournament--kind of like NCAA hoops--and it adds a different dimension to an event that otherwise would look, heaven forbid, a lot like alpine skiing.
``I prefer the parallel event,'' American Rosey Fletcher said. ``It's more spectator friendly. I like someone right there racing against you. It's a good concept.''
The format is new to the Olympics. In 1998, when snowboarding made its debut in Japan, the riders went twice down the mountain and the best combined time won.
Those games were marred by the Ross Rebagliati affair. The Canadian was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for marijuana. But an arbitration panel later restored the medal when it determined a snowboarder couldn't be disqualified for a positive marijuana test.
Rebagliati had his medal, but it was a blow to the reputation of snowboarders.
The sport's image has been looking up the past few days, especially in the United States.
Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J. Thomas swept the medals in the halfpipe Monday, the first time any American team has done that in a Winter Olympics since 1956. The day before, Kelly Clark won the first gold of these games for the United States.
``They've got some good momentum going,'' PGS rider Chris Klug said. ``We've got a pretty incredible crew of riders right up here, too. I have a lot of confidence in us to get the job done as well.''
Klug, a second-time Olympian who had a liver transplant in July 2000, and Fletcher, a two-time silver medalist at the world championships, are two of the top American contenders.
Jasey Jay Anderson of Canada is one of the overall favorites for the men, and Karine Ruby of France is a favorite on the women's side.
But in this new format, seemingly anyone can win if they get hot at the right time, or simply have another rider's number.
The top 16 qualifiers will be determined Thursday by regular runs, based on time.
In the finals, No. 1 races No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15, and so on. They race twice on side-by-side giant slalom courses, with each snowboarder going down each run once. Anyone who sweeps the races advances to the next round. If the riders split races, the one with the best combined time wins.
U.S. snowboarding coach Peter Foley said anyone who watches the snowboarders race won't get it mixed up with alpine skiing.
``It looks completely different,'' he said. ``We're carving turns. I try to ski once or twice a year, and you can really see the differences when you do that.''
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